This past weekend, I had the honor of experiencing my first 100 mile race from the prime vantage point of crew member for a men’s top ten contender. I got to watch many of the world’s top ultra runners battle heat, tough terrain and mental demons all the for the privilege of running 3/4 of a lap on a high school track. It has been 3 days since the Western States Endurance Run and I am still having trouble processing all of the intensity, strength and love I witnessed, but I know that it was one of the most rewarding weekends of my life and I can’t wait to get there myself one day. The word community gets thrown around a lot, but the genuine level of excitement and the collective joy for every single runner when they made it to the track that I witnessed is certainly something special.
If there is one lesson I learned from my experience this weekend, it is an unwavering humility and respect for the 100 mile distance. I will admit, until I saw the carnage and guts (sometimes literally) it takes to earn that belt buckle in person, I thought it looked totally doable. The numerous videos showcasing the brave achievements of ultra runners such as Sally McCrae or the band of Nike dudes who went to Europe last summer are certainly awe inspiring, but are unable to really capture the grit involved in clawing your way back from certain failure several times over the course of a day. I don’t think this is the fault of any of the film makers – and in fact I think they do a great job of summarizing a lot of what goes into these races, but there is something so visceral about the 100 mile distance that is impossible to capture on film. And I say this from the perspective of someone who has never run a 100 mile race, so I fully accept that I am missing out on a whole other level as just a spectator. The oven like intensity of the heat, the electric charge in the air when a runner comes into an aid station having jumped several places, the adrenaline rush when the leader runs though the aid station at 20 minutes ahead of course record pace, the feel of your runner’s salt dried shirt before you douse him in water, the taste of a beer after almost 24 hours of being on your feet, and finally, the experience of focusing on this one thing for 15-30 hours. These are all part of what makes this race special. The last is possibly the most important and one I had no comprehension of until I experienced it for myself. Sitting at an aid station for hours waiting for your runner to come in is tough, but it gives you the time to really think about the fact that while you are sitting there in the 100 degree heat, they are running in it. Experiencing the actual passage of time alongside them – even if only figuratively – gives a whole new level of appreciation for the effort they are undertaking.
In some ways, my Western States experience was a baptism by fire, and in other ways it wasn’t at all. I went from not even knowing about the race this time last year to crewing my first 100 mile race for a men’s top ten contender. Some would call that jumping into the deep end. However, we had an amazing crew chief in Jenny Maier and our runner, Chris Denucci, really made running 100 miles look pretty easy. Don’t get me wrong, he worked his ass off for that coveted M9 spot, but he raced unbelievably smart and avoided any major catastrophes (mainly by ignoring the carnage that was happening to his feet starting at about mile 7). Watching him fight for and hold onto that top ten spot was one of the most inspiring things I have seen, and I am so happy to have been a very small part of the day. I also learned that I have no fucking clue what I am talking about when it comes to feet. I took Chris’s shoes off for him and he asked how bad they looked and I said “eh, not that bad”. A few minutes later he headed to the medical tent, where they proceeded to take pictures of his feet because they were some of the worst blisters they had ever seen. So clearly I don’t have a future in podiatry! Chris, I hope you are still relishing in your achievement and that your feet have started to heal!
One downside to crewing for a total badass is that I missed all but the top 15 or 20 runners all day. I was beyond impressed by Jim Walmsley for his super human abilities, but even more by his resolve to finish even after things went downhill. Similarly, Sage Canaday and David Laney, were podium contenders who suffered immensely but never gave up. I loved getting updates on YiOu Wang and Devon Yanko (SFRC team mates) and am beyond impressed by both of them for their amazing grit. I also loved seeing fellow SWAP (Some Work All Play – David Roche’s coaching group) member Chris Mocko die about 3 deaths and come back stronger every time. He and Denucci were trading paces all day and my loyalties were torn because they were both running so well and I wanted both of them to crush it.
Apart from all the amazing runners I was also blown away by the community. Everyone is so friendly and I am so new to the scene that I don’t recognize most people, but everyone was really welcoming. From accidentally hugging Sally McCrae when I met her on a shakeout run in Squaw, to finally meeting another SWAP team mate Amelia Boone and the rest of Devon’s awesome crew (just to name a few) I totally geeked out on the concentration of ultra running legends and also felt totally at home.